Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Friedman on Intolerance: A Critique
The essence of libertarianism is its nonaggression principle. In order to determine whether some act or concept or institution is compatible with this philosophy, one may use this as a sort of litmus test. If you initiate violence against someone, you must pay the penalty for so doing, and are presumptively acting outside of libertarian law.
However, in the view of some commentators who really should know better, intolerance, not creating an uninvited border crossing, is the be-all and end-all of libertarianism. In this view, tolerance, while it may not be sufficient, is certainly a necessary condition. If you are not tolerant, you cannot be a libertarian. States Milton Friedman (1991, p. 17, material in brackets inserted by present author. See also Friedman and Friedman, 1998, p. 161) in this regard,
This relativistic, know-nothingism of Friedman's has been subjected to a withering rebuke by Kinsella (2009):
And states Hoppe (1997, 23),
Precisely. The strong implication, here, would appear to be that if we were vouchsafed such knowledge, then we would be justified in imposing our values on others. But this is hardly in keeping with the libertarian ethos.
Further, Friedman is guilty of tolerance, and humility with a vengeance. So much so it amounts to a stultifying skepticism. If it is reminiscent of anything, it is that of multiculturalism's claim that no society can possibly be better than any other. If no one can really know anything about anything, and are as humble as Milton Friedman claims to be, how can we even engage in political philosophy? Yet if there is anyone associated at least in the public mind with taking strong stances on issues, a host of them as it happens, it is Professor Friedman.
But let us not tread too fast, lest we be accused of hubris. Friedman (1991, 17) tosses the following example across the bows of libertarians. Suppose A is on a bridge, and sees B poised to jump off it to his death. What does A do? If A has even a shred of humanity in him, he immediately seizes B, and saves his life — against B's will. According to this supposed libertarian,
But the libertarian nonaggression axiom is more than sufficient to answer this challenge. If A wants to be a hero, and enslave B against his will, and, clearly, "for B's own good," then A should be willing to pay the price for this set out by the libertarian philosophy. One part of the price for A is saving B at the possible risk to his own life. But another part of this, a crucial one, is that A should also be willing to pay the legal consequences of his initiatory violence. Friedman to the contrary notwithstanding, A was guilty of physically imposing his will on B. False imprisonment is, ordinarily, a very serious crime. In our present Good Samaritan case it is still a crime, but, presumably, any libertarian court worthy of the name would take the lack of mens rea into account, assuming the unlikely scenario that B wishes to press charges.
For what length of time would it be justified for A to hold B as prisoner (to safeguard the latter's life against another suicide attempt)? A day or so, until the would-be suicide can collect his thoughts is one thing. But as time goes on, the attempt of A to preserve B's life begins more and more to resemble the "de-programmers" who attempt to rescue people from the clutches of "cults," whether they wish to be rescued or not. On the other hand, children are a special case in libertarianism, as they are in every other political philosophy. It would not be unjust to incarcerate a child who has attempted suicide against himself for as long as it took for him to reach majority. "Humility and tolerance" are not at all the essence of libertarianism; indeed, they are otherwise unobjectionable characteristics. But the law must deal with cases of this sort in some way, and Friedman's refusal to see any possible principle involved is of little help in establishing just law.
Friedman's (1991, 18) next attempt to peddle his "tolerance" nostrums shows him as rather intolerant of Ludwig von Mises:
At the very least, Friedman reveals himself as a person who is intolerant of (supposedly) intolerant people. But this amounts to intolerance on Friedman's part, in contradiction to his own avowed philosophy.
What, precisely, was the issue under discussion on the part of those supposed free-market economists? Contrary to our reporter, it was not "distribution of income, taxes, progressive taxes." Rather, the talks at this Mont Pelerin meeting focused on Freidman's "negative income tax," which, long after 1947, he still has the effrontery to defend on libertarian grounds. In fact, he does so in the publication under discussion:
There is more wrong here than you can shake a stick at. Of course, we must oppose the "rag bag" of present welfarist policies. They are unjust, and do more harm than good not only to those forced to pay for them, but, also, horrifically, since they can least afford it, to the recipients (Murray, 1984), not the least of which damage is the breakup of the black family (Tucker, 1984).
Then, on a practical level, where is the case for blithely assuming that the negative income tax would replace all the rag bags of welfare, rather than, simply, be added to them, and thus becoming just one more rag in a now bigger bag? Just because Friedman is proposing this very outcome does not render it likely to occur. One would have to be pretty politically naïve to believe any such thing. (Equally naïve was Friedman's 3 percent rule proposal for the Fed, as even he later admitted; Friedman and Friedman, 1999. Why should those placed charge of the central bank quietly acquiesce to any such limitation on their powers?) It is thus irresponsible for any free-market supporter to advocate the negative income tax on this ground alone.
Further, there is simply no reason to assume that this plan constituted a "transition" from a welfare state to a non–welfare state. If Friedman really wanted to "transit" toward a fully free-enterprise policy of welfare, that is, of course, no welfare at all, his transition proposal would have more accurately been along the lines of a fixed percentage reduction in payments over a given period. For example, a 20 percent reduction over five years; after which welfare would end. Period. The negative income tax simply has no such implication. Rather, it is something that can easily be made permanent, and, indeed, was intended to be so by this supposed "libertarian."
Even if this plan constituted a legitimate transition, which it certainly does not, there is an unquestioned premised in Friedman's examination, namely, that gradualism is to be preferred to abrupt change. But this is hardly always the case. Consider the debate over slavery in the mid-19th century, in the decades before the War of Northern Aggression broke out. There were the abolitionists versus the gradualists. The former wanted an end to this vicious system then and now; the latter argued for measured change. If Friedman were to apply his "principles" to this epoch, he would have been a gradualist. But no libertarian worthy of his salt could have been anything but an abolitionist. To have the power to end slavery quickly, and to, instead, hold it in abeyance so that people could adjust to freedom, would surely be anathema to libertarians. There is no transition needed at all, in either the welfare or slavery cases. Both should be ended, and precipitously. The rallying cry of the abolitionists, "Gradualism in theory is perpetuity in practice" (Pease and Pease, p. xxxv) is as true in the one case as in the other.
Here is another quote from William Lloyd Garrison: "Urge immediate abolition as earnestly as we may, it will, alas! be gradual abolition in the end. We have never said that slavery would be overthrown by a single blow; that it ought to be, we shall always contend" (Liberator, August 13, 1831). And yet another:
(For other critiques of gradualism from a libertarian point of view see McElroy, undated; Rothbard, 2005.)
It is not at all immoral to say, "we'll overnight drop the whole thing." What is unethical is to have the power to rid ourselves of this illicit program, and do nothing. Friedman, all on his own, had no such ability. However, the pages of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, NBC, ABC, CBS and other major media were open to him. He could have advocated a more libertarian plan, whether outright elimination or a percentage decrease each year until the demise of welfare was reached. He did no such thing, instead contenting himself with advocated his pernicious negative income tax.
Friedman "believes that we lose a lot of plausibility for our ideas by not" offering gradual transition plans for moving toward free enterprise. No. We lose a lot of plausibility by being dismissed by the likes of Friedman for being "a cult or a religion," and not a living, vital force.
Yes, it cannot be denied that to first make it next to impossible for the poor to get the jobs necessary to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves (unions, minimum wages, licensing restrictions on entry into fields such as taxi cabs, hair braiding — I readily acknowledge that Friedman did magnificent work on these sorts of issues) and then to yank welfare payments out from under them at one fell swoop would be unethical. But the answer is not to support a continuation of welfare on a more efficient basis; rather, it is to sweep away, as soon as possible, both methods of impoverishing the poor: welfare and these other initiatives.
Yes, the negative income tax would be more efficient than the rag bag welfare system, if only because it would rid us of the "poverty pimps," the middle-class nomenklatura of social workers, lawyers, aides, busybodies, do-gooders, and others who batten down on programs ostensibly aimed at alleviating poverty. But the last thing we need is for evil to be accomplished on a more efficient basis. Do we really want more effective gulags, concentration camps? For the libertarian, efficiency is the handmaiden of ethics, not the other way around.
But perhaps the most vile aspect of the negative income tax is the fact that it inculcates welfare as a quasi right. In doing so, this plays into the hands of the most fervid defenders of welfare on the political left. These are the people who promote so-called welfare rights. What is wrong with welfare "rights"? These payments come from taxpayers who are forced to fork over their own hard earned money in order to support those, welfare "queens" and others, who simply have no "right" to the wealth of other people. (But in a democracy, the majority either directly voted for the welfare system, or, indirectly for the politicians who implemented it. Does this not render this "right"? No. Of course not. There is, after all, such a thing as the tyranny of the majority. Merely because a majority of the electorate supports policy does not make it "right." If it did, then, whatever Hitler did was also "right," since he came to power as the result of a democratic election.) If the citizen has an obligation to pay taxes when he earns more than a certain amount, then, according to this law, he has a legal right to a subsidy from the government when his income falls below a given level. If this is not akin to a "right," then nothing is. With friends of liberty those who foment such policies, this cause hardly needs enemies.
So, when Mises walked out of the Mont Pelerin meeting in a huff, in reaction against the support for the negative income tax among those so-called free enterprisers, he was entirely justified in doing so. If that is intolerance, we need much more of it! After all, if these were just a few mainstream academics discussing socialist nostrums, Mises would have been his usual cordial self. But it would take the patience of a saint to tolerate such a spectacle from the supposed world leaders of the free-enterprise system, and Mises was a mere mortal, at least in this regard.
Friedman's next intolerant attack is aimed at Mises and praxeology. He states,
As an Austrian economist, I am outraged by this condescending attitude toward, this complete and utter misunderstanding of, the praxeological school. On the other hand, I dare not be too critical of Friedman; criticizing him is like taking candy from a baby: he is totally unaware of the Austrian responses to this sort of calumny, whereas members of the praxeological school are completely conversant with the logical positivism on the basis of which Friedman launches his attack. So, I will now be more "tolerant" than I would otherwise be in this regard.
Let me start out on a positive note. Friedman is absolutely correct when he says that his own critical views on praxeology are entirely relevant to the issue of toleration. (Prychitko, 2002, is another author who maintains that praxeology is intolerant per se. For a rejoinder, see Block, unpublished.) It certainly would appear, at least at the outset, that Mises's views are "intolerant."
But superficial appearances can sometimes be deceiving, and that is true in this case. Let us consider an example. When A trades an a to B for one of his b's, each of them, A and B, gain in welfare in the ex ante sense. That is, A values the b he receives more than the a he must give up in this exchange. And, similarly, B, ranks the incoming a more highly than the outgoing b. Perhaps the best illustration of this is that famous front cover of the Saturday Evening Post where Norman Rockwell draws the milkman and the pie man, each sitting in front of their respective trucks, munching away on a pie and slurping at a bottle of milk. We are given to understand by Rockwell, an artist who would appear to know more about economics than Friedman, that right before the scenario he depicted, the milkman (A) traded a bottle of milk (a) with the pie man (B) for one of the latter's products (b), and that each did so because he valued what he received more than what he had to give up for it.
The difficulty with Friedman's treatment of praxeology is that he does not have a concrete example in front of him in order to facilitate his analysis. With this milk-pie case firmly embedded in our minds, it is easy to see where Friedman went astray. Suppose one economist, call him the Austrian, offers the pie-milk case as an example of voluntary trade making both parties better off, and that they rank the two goods traded in inverse order. A second economist, call him a Chicago School economist, denies this. Following Friedman's "reasoning," the Austrian says to the Chicagoan, "You made a mistake in reasoning." Whereupon the Chicagoan returns this sally, and says to the Austrian, "You made a mistake in reasoning." Do they then have no resort but to come to physical blows? Not a bit of it. The Austrian replies, "What reason could the milk man and the pie man have had, in entering their trade, other than to improve their economic welfare?" The Chicagoite, a Popperian, challenges the Austrian to specify a state of the world where he would regard his contention (voluntary trade implies mutual gain and reverse rankings of goods) "as sufficient to contradict (his) view." And, of course, the answer is, there is no possible state of the world that could contradict this praxeological claim, since these claims are necessarily true.
The Chicagoan economist would throw up his hands in dismay, thinking that the Austrian had "convert(ed) an asserted body of substantive conclusions into a religion." But if the praxeologist is guilty of this charge, then, so, too, would be all other scholars whose specialty is based on logic, not experience. For example, mathematicians, geometricians, logicians. Does Friedman think that mathematicians quarreling over whether or not 2+2=4 have no alternative but to fight? That the only way to settle the truth of the Pythagorean Theorem is to enter the boxing ring? That the truth of the syllogism, "Socrates is a man, all men are mortal, Socrates is mortal," can only be settled through force of arms? That mathematics, geometry, logic, are mere cultish religions? That specifying possible falsifications is the be all and end all of argumentation? Let the logical positivists, then, specify a real world situation where 2+2=4, the Pythagorean Theorem and the Socrates syllogism are false. These claims, all of them, those stemming from mathematics, geometry, logic, and, yes, economics too, are not tautologies, mere announcements as to how words are to be used. Rather, they are synthetic apriori statements: they are necessarily true, and, also, give a profound understanding of how the real world operates.
There is more to the examination of scholarship in general, and to economics in particular, than exists in Friedman's philosophy. Yes, empirical evidence is one way to "resolve disagreements without a conflict." But, there are other ways, too. And, empirical evidence, in some cases, is insufficient, even in principle, because not all issues are empirical.
Friedman (1991, 18-20) now moves on to another critique of "intolerance." He says:
Once more, unhappily, we catch Friedman in a statement far from his best. Again, he seems to be unaware that there is a libertarian literature directed precisely to these questions. But, before we get to it, we must note that the argument from "How many times have you heard someone say" has no place in scholarly discourse. It would have been far more appropriate to quote and cite a specific Austrian economist, or libertarian philosopher. Then, defenders such as myself, could have the entire context available. (Note that in this rejoinder to Friedman I do him the honor of quoting his actual words. I do not resort to putting words in his mouth, attributing to him very naïve and inarticulate versions of what he actually said, or wrote.) The way Friedman puts matters, libertarians content themselves with squawking, parrot-like, "private property, private property," in response to all objections to philosophy, such as that now launched by Friedman. Not so, not so. Rather, there is a rather sophisticated analysis which may, indeed, be property summarized under the rubric of "private property rights."
First, consider the airplane case. What possesses Friedman to even think that any libertarian would posit that the homeowner has property rights 20,000 feet up in the air? Certainly, none has ever published such arrant nonsense. It could only be based on the ad coelum doctrine, according to which ownership of a plot of land on the surface of the earth entitles legal control over an expanding cone of air over this property, and, also, downward, toward the center of the earth. But this is directly contrary to the homesteading theory of libertarianism (Hoppe, 1993; Locke, 1948; Rothbard, 1973, 32; also see Kinsella, 2003; Block vs Epstein, 2005), according to which one becomes owner of only those parts of the earth with which he is the first to "mix his labor."
At the other end of this example, how low can you go? Would 50 feet above rooftops constitute a trespass? Of course. It would interfere with the peaceful enjoyment of their premises by the owners, who homesteaded them. Unless, possibly, they are located very close to an airport, which located there first; but here, presumably, the residents would be forbidden to build in the first place, lest they interfere with air flights.
An instance of this objection was discussed by Coase (1960), Friedman's colleague at the University of Chicago, and fellow Nobel Prize winner in economics. It was the case of Sturgis v. Bridgeman, which revolved around the issue of whether the manufacturer may run his machinery, which interferes with the quiet needed by the doctor in order to operate his stethoscope and other medical needs. Coase, of course, answered this question in terms of which decision would maximize GDP, but the libertarian analysis is clear on this matter: it depends on who was there first, to homestead either the given level or noise, or the required level of quiet. So, to answer Friedman's challenge, it all depends on who was the initial homesteader of the noise or quiet rights.
These are, to be sure, "practical questions"; but they do not at all "require answers based on experience." Rather, the key to their solution is justice, based on libertarian homesteading theory. All the "experience" in the world will not get us one iota in the direction of a just solution, a concept alien to the Friedmanite philosophy. Yes, "before there were airplanes, nobody thought of the problem of trespass through air." And of course "simply saying 'private property' is a mantra, not an answer. Simply saying 'use the market' is not an answer." But these are only summaries of the libertarian position. They do not at all exhaust its analysis, as Friedman contends.
Let us now hear from Professor Friedman (1991) on his educational voucher proposal:
To say that socialized public schools cannot be simply ended, and private schools allowed to summarily take their place, is false. When the USSR and eastern bloc countries (very ineptly) privatized, they felt no great need for any transition period. Let alone one that retained government control to the extent of school vouchers (complete responsibility for finance). It is not true that any transition plan or period is needed, and, certainly, allowing the state to remain in charge of school finance cannot properly count as a "transition." It is not incumbent on the libertarian to offer fancy plans for "getting from here to there." The public school buildings can simply be auctioned off (The proceeds going to the long suffering tax payers, not to further enhancing already swollen public coffers) to the highest bidders, and be used for whatever these new owners believe will best maximize their profits, schooling certainly included in the mix, at their discretion.
However, if, for some reason we accept the notion, arguendo, that a transition plan must be offered, how about this one: auction off 20 percent of all public school buildings for the next five years; at the end of this time, all such amenities will be in private hands, where they belong, at least in the view of those who oppose educational socialism.
One of the least salutary effects of educational vouchers is, paradoxically, that they render public schools more efficient. Under present institutional arrangements, parents have no choice; they are compelled to send their children to dysfunctional public schools based on geographical considerations. But under the Friedman voucher plan students can flock to the better public establishments. This will pressure the poor performers to improve their standards, or, possibly, although this is unclear, exit the industry entirely and/or be given over to better administrators. As a result, the overall performance of this pernicious sector of the economy will improve, in a manner akin to how the "weeding out" process functions in the private sector. But is this not all to the good? No. The last thing libertarians desire is an improvement in public schools. This is a socialist organization through and through, specializing in inculcating tender young minds to support government. The less well it functions, the better. Do we want slavery, concentration camps, to function more efficiently? Of course not. If an institution is evil (public schools are of course less evil than these others, but wicked nonetheless) it is best if it works inefficiently. Friedman, however, in aligning himself with a program that will improve the functioning of a vital part of the government apparatus, thus reveals himself not as a libertarian, but as an efficiency expert for the state.
I have claimed that Mises was justified in his reaction to the Mont Pelerin socialists. But, even if he were not, his action would still not be incompatible with libertarianism. This political philosophy has to do with respect for the non aggression axiom, not tolerance. Were toleration the key to this philosophy, then people such as Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Theresa, Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson and Nelson Mandela, who were noted for this characteristic, would have been libertarians. These were all admirable people in some ways, but to characterize them as libertarians, as implied by Friedman's analysis, is nothing short of grotesque.
Walter Block is the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair in Economics at Loyola University, senior fellow of the Mises Institute, and regular columnist for LewRockwell.com. Send him mail. See Walter Block's article archives.
This article originally appeared in Libertarian Papers 2, 41 (2010).
Copyright © 2012 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided full credit is given.
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